Friday, December 25, 2015

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Day 4: Florence (Wandering & Sunset)

When setting our itinerary for the first day in Florence, we had a chunk of time without anything to do.  I scoped out Trip Advisor and found that the highest-ranked thing to do in Florence is to climb to the top of a neighboring hill and to watch the sun set over Florence.  I pitched the idea to Billy and he was on board until we actually stopped and looked at the map, realizing that the hill in question was practically off the darned thing.  Coming off the heels of Rome, where one end of the map to the other would take hours of walking to cover, we were a little nervous.  We seriously considered scrapping the plan but ultimately decided to be brave and wander through the heart of Florence on the way, with no agenda or timeline other than hoping to be in the right place at the right time for sunset.

Maybe it's because we stayed right in the heart of Florence, or maybe we were just kind of silly and naive, but as we strolled away from our apartment, we turned a corner and all of a sudden (boom), there was the Duomo.  There wasn't really any lead-up, and it's not like you could see it coming from our proximity, so it was pretty cool how without even realizing it you end up face-to-face with the most recognizable structure in the city.

Next up, we made our way over to the Ponte Vecchio bridge.  The vast majority of the bridges in Florence were bombed during World War II, so this bridge is a bit of an Italian jewel due to its survival.  Incidentally, this bridge also happens to be populated with wall to wall jewelry stores.  I think Pittsburgh should have more of that style of bridge, to be perfectly honest.

There isn't a great deal of scenery to take in while on the Ponte Vecchio bridge, due to the shops -- it's almost more like a tunnel than a bridge.  Fortunately, there are some great vistas on the nearby bridges, so we didn't hesitate to whip out the selfie stick once we made it to those spots.

We kept on making our way outside of the city, walking along the Arno River.  At this point, it had been almost 24 full hours since my last gelato, so we rectified that immediately.  Yet again, Rick Steves came through, directing us to an itty bitty hole-in-the-wall joint on the way out of the city center.  I have zero doubt in my mind that we would have missed this place had we not been looking specifically for it.  We splurged and each got a gelato and our very first sodas of the trip, plus a cannoli since they looked so darned good.  And it was all perfection.

At this point, we'd made our way to the base of the hill, so all that was left to do was climb.  And climb we did.  It wasn't too bad, but I was definitely glad to have had some gelato and soda to keep me refreshed along the way.  Absolutely every ounce of effort required to climb those steps was worth it, though, for the view we got once we hit the top.

We couldn't tell where the best view was, so we decided to take about 100 selfies with a variety of backgrounds.  You can't say I didn't warn you about the photo parade happening below.

Once the sun started setting, we grabbed a spot and watched it all unfold.  Honestly, this sunset was one of the best, most relaxing, most enjoyable moments in my life.

We sidled up to the most scenic look-out point and waited our turn for a picture.  We even opted to hand off our camera to another tourist rather than potentially get in someone's way with the selfie stick.  It was a beautiful moment.  Made even more beautiful by the horny Italian couple who decided to crowd in right next to us and start passionately making out.  Ah, memories.

After witnessing that true expression of love, we made our way back to the apartment, talking the entire time about how happy we were that we decided to go for the hike to see the sunset.  We stopped at a wine bar along the way for our "dinner," since we were both still pretty darned stuffed from our big lunch.  With one quick "good night" to the Duomo, we put a cap on our first day in Florence, having fallen in love with the city more dramatically than we ever expected.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Day 4: Florence (Transit & Leather Market)

On Tuesday morning, we woke up and headed directly to the Rome train station to make our way to Florence.  Before the trip, everyone and their brother told us how easy the trains would be in Italy.  We weren't sure exactly what to expect, but I'm here to tell you that the trains were a bit more challenging than everyone discusses.  Specifically, I guess I expected the trains to run akin to an airline system.  I bought a seat on train 5, leaving at 10:00 AM to Florence.  In my mind, all I needed to know was what platform train 5 would be using.

It quickly became apparent that wasn't the case.  Instead, the train system is kind of like a hybrid between an airline and a metro.  Our tickets looked like airline tickets, with all the key pieces of information.  However, when we looked at the board of upcoming departures, our train number and our departure time were listed, but Florence was nowhere to be seen.  As it turns out, that's because Florence isn't the final destination.  Instead, it's one of the stops this specific train makes, so you have to make sure to get on the right train and to get off at the right stop.  It's pretty clear, once you get the hang of it, but it's not as idiot-proof as everyone makes it seem.  And to think that this was probably our least stressful train experience of the trip... but that's a tale or two for the future.

We found our train, no problem, and scooted off to Florence.  We dozed intermittently, and it was pretty exciting to open my eyes at one point and have an undeniably Tuscan landscape looking back at me.  Once we arrived, we followed the directions to our AirBnb property the best we could.  In advance of the trip, we had made a document compiling all of the directions available from Google Maps and from our local hosts.  That mostly did the trick, but there was usually a wrong turn while we were gathering our bearings.  One wrong turn doesn't sound like a lot, but whenever it's hot and you're tired and you have your luggage with you, it becomes the biggest deal in the world.  We ultimately made it to our apartment only to realize that we had absolutely no idea how to enter the building.  This was our only AirBnb snafu.  Somewhere along the way, our host hadn't told us (or we had somehow missed) that we had to press the "8" button to be buzzed in.  A few stressed out texts (again, tired, hot, etc.) and one expensive international call later, and we were in.  We hoofed it up to the top floor of the building, which wasn't a fun process, but the pay-off was worth it.

Our apartment happened to be right off the Mercato Centrale.  During our fuss trying to get into the apartment building, we had walked past about 400 restaurants (or so it seemed).  My hunger level was rising more quickly than my stress level, so by the time we got situated and did a load of laundry, I declared that I wanted to eat somewhere within a couple hundred yards.  Billy agreed, but was wary that we'd eat at some horrifically tourist-heavy spot, which we'd been trying to avoid.  Fortunately, my man Rick Steves came through yet again and let us know that a restaurant about 50 paces from our door, Zaza's, had some good eats.  It was definitely more tourist-y than some of the other spots we visited, but it was close and the food was delicious, so it got two thumbs way, way up.

Billy went with ribollita, an Italian bread soup, and mushroom and truffle ravioli.  He had wanted to try ribollita for a while, but neither of us realized that (a) Zaza's serves a vertiable vat of it per serving, or (b) a hot, heavy bread soup would maybe not be the ideal appetizer on a hot summer-y day while dining outside.  Needless to say, he was quite stuffed.  I opted for a slice of grilled bread doused in olive oil, followed by gnocchi with fresh crab.  Again, I was expecting lump crab meat in the sauce.  Not so.  Wet wipes were involved for the second time in 18 hours.  We also had some absolutely amazing house wine, which is probably to be expected in Tuscany.

Satisfactorily stuffed, we redirected our focus to shopping.  Specifically, leather shopping.  Florence has a well-known leather market, so we decided to spend some of our hard-earned dough.  Billy walked out with a new wallet and a new belt, while I left with a new belt and a pair of leather gloves that may or may not be lined with cashmere/"cashmere."  We also spent a period of time weighing the pros and cons of about 5 million different necktie options so Billy could buy some ridiculously cheap ones.

With our bellies bigger and our wallets lighter, we headed back to the apartment for a nap before tackling the last item on our agenda for the day -- wandering.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Day 3: Rome (Colosseum & Our Last Evening)

For a bit of backstory, we had originally planned to tour the Colosseum on our first full day in Rome (a Sunday).  After booking the tour, the company reached out to us and said that tours actually aren't offered on the first Sunday of the month, so we had to select a different day.  So we decided to go with a tour on the day of our arrival to Italy (a Saturday).  About two weeks before our trip, the company reached out to us and said that the Colosseum had misbooked their tour and, as a result, if we stuck with the Saturday option, it would be a "standard" tour of the Colosseum, not a tour including the restricted access areas, like we had originally purchased.  So after some pouting, we decided to book the restricted access tour on Monday afternoon, the same day as our Vatican tour.  Meaning we had pretty much eight hours of walking, standing, and listening all crammed into one day.  Oh, and part of it was outdoors and it was 90+ degrees.  It was an awesome experience, but man did it take it out of us!

As soon as we got to the Colosseum, we splurged and had a four-scoop gelato cone apiece.  On paper, this was all fine and well but the gelato itself was kind of meh.  Plus, I spilled all over my white skirt.  Not your best work, gelato gods.

Shortly thereafter, we met up with our tour group, which happened to be led by the same guide that we had that morning.  After a few administrative tasks, we headed into the Colosseum itself.

Similarly to the Vatican tour, this was... a lot of information.  And there's so much to look at that the visual information competes with the audio information and it all just kind of blurs.  It also doesn't help matters that I'm attempting to recap this almost two months after the fact.  Hopefully the pictures alone do it justice.

For those of you who haven't been to the Colosseum, it's kind of like two concentric ovals.  As a result, we spent some time talking about the structure while still in the outer entrance-y area.  These columns have holes and divots in them because the metal that was on the columns was extracted for other purposes, leaving some Swiss Cheese-y columns today.

Our first restricted area was the actual floor of the Colosseum - this was probably my favorite part of the tour.   

Seats that were used by Roman Senators, complete with the Senators' names carved into them

When you're on the floor level, you really gain an appreciation for how large the entire structure is. That said, my word was it HOT there.  Positively no shade, no breeze, and unrelenting sun, right at the hottest part of the day.

Fortunately, we moved directly from the floor to the dungeon, which was 100% shaded.

For our final stop in the Colosseum itself, we went to the third ring, which is the highest tier accessible to guests.  From there, we got great views of the surrounding "campus" and the inner grounds of the Colosseum.

The final part of our tour took us to the surrounding Roman ruins, such as the Roman Forum.  When I visited this area in 2008, I was kind of underwhelmed.  To me, it just looked like a lot of random structures and rubble.  But, Billy had never been and it was part of the tour itinerary, so happily we plodded over to the ruins.  And, just like in 2008, I was unimpressed.  Billy agreed.  There's very little in terms of educational/visual materials to help add onto what you're viewing.  Our guide happened to have a great book that showed before and after renderings, so we could easily imagine what a structure looked like in its greatest splendor.  Without that book, this part of the tour would have been a total flop in my opinion.  It's crazy to me that this highly-traveled attraction doesn't just put up some placards with those same images, allowing all visitors to get the best experience instead of relying on the third-party guides to provide their own materials.  Anyway, here are some photos.

At this point in the tour, we were totally wiped, physically and mentally.  We opted to go back to our apartment for a rest before dinner and, unfortunately, we had our least pleasant Italian experience along the way.  Having read oodles about the pickpockets who work the Roman subway system, we were on high alert as we hopped around the city.  On our ride back from the Colosseum, we were standing near the door to the train, along with a group of three very petite elderly women.  Just as the doors were closing, a couple, who looked like locals, squeezed onto the train car with us.  It was a very crowded car but, for no discernible reason, the man insisted on relocating to the middle of the car, or, at least, asking to relocate, as he squeezed between the elderly women.  The female he was with caused a bit of a small scene, asking for them to move so he could move.  It was all very fishy.  And then I noticed that, despite it being over 90 degrees out, the gentleman had a big bulky coat draped over his arm.  From Billy's vantage point, he could see that the gentleman's coat was mostly, but not entirely, obscuring the fact that the dude was shoving his hand right into one of the elderly woman's purses.  Being the Eagle Scout that he is, Billy grabbed the guy's hand, told him to stop, and gave him some angry eyes.  I stood there dumbfounded as the guy proceeded to grab his crotch and gesticulate wildly, while screaming at Billy.  It was a pretty enjoyable experience, through and through.  (Un)fortunately, both the couple and us hopped off the train at the next stop.  We were happy to get off the train, but less than thrilled that we were still in the same neck of the woods as the folks who had caused some anxiety in our world.  We scuttled out of there and took a few collecting breaths.  Nothing bad actually happened (to us, I can't speak for the elderly woman's purse before Billy intervened), but it was pretty off-putting and left a bit of a sour taste in our mouth regarding Rome.

Not to be deterred, though, we made the most of our final evening.  We got cleaned up and headed to dinner at Ristorante il Gabriello, near the Spanish Steps, courtesy of a Rick Steves recommendation. I think there was exactly one other table filled with diners when we sat down, but Italian food in an empty restaurant now is better than Italian food in a populated restaurant later.  Billy went with the antipasto ("I want vegetables," he said.  Psh, whatever.) and a delicious risotto. 

I, on the other hand, went for a caprese salad and a linguini dish with lobster.  I'm used to seafood pasta dishes you get in the states, where you get a smidge of meat here or there and call it a day.  Not so in Italy, it appears.  I had to work for my meal.

Everything was insanely delicious; this was hands-down one of our best meals of the trip.  In addition to the amazing food, we had some great company -- there was a solo diner at the next table over who recognized us as fellow Americans and struck up a conversation.  He was from Dallas and had been to Italy dozens of times.  Since we were on the front end of our trip, it was really great to talk about his experiences with our future destinations and what recommendations he had.  He taught us a few key Italian phrases, and just made the entire experience really enjoyable.  I feel a little bit like an "Amurrican" saying this, but I was struck by how refreshing it was, intermittently, to find myself in the company of fellow Americans during this trip.  Traveling in a foreign country can be very tiring, between the walking, the navigating, the environment-watching, the planning, etc.  There was a nice peacefulness that came from just talking about any ol' topic with positively no language barrier, all while seated in an air-conditioned restaurant while enjoying a delicious meal and a great bottle of wine.

After we wrapped up dinner, we strolled a bit to check out Piazza del Popolo, the only "big" piazza we hadn't made our way to as of yet.  Obviously that brief jaunt left us absolutely famished, so we had to get gelato (duh) back at the Spanish Steps.  This gelato turned out to be surprisingly expensive (like, twice as much as we usually spend), and we originally chalked that up to location, as it was mere feet from the Spanish Steps.  But then we tasted it and realized that part of the mark-up was due to location and part of it was due to some goooooood gelato.  For a period of time, it held the crown as the best gelato of the trip.  Silly me, not knowing the glory that awaited me.

With full stomachs and full hearts, we headed off to bed, for the next day was to bring us our first Italian train experience and our second destination - Florence!

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